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Juvenile court’s gag order overturned by Arkansas high court

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  1. Prior Restraint

    NMU         ARKANSAS         Prior Restraints         Jul 5, 2000    

Juvenile court’s gag order overturned by Arkansas high court

  • A judge’s limitation on what the press could publish about a school shooting constituted an unconstitutional prior restraint.

A unanimous Arkansas Supreme Court ruled on June 29 that a gag order prohibiting publication of a 12-year-old juvenile suspect’s name and photograph violated the First Amendment by prohibiting dissemination of information.

The court noted that suspect Michael Nichols’ name and photograph had already been in print for nearly a week before the gag order was issued.

“The proverbial bell had been rung, so to speak, and could not be unrung,” the court said. “The breadth of the gag order leads us to conclude that the judge’s order is a plain, manifest, clear and gross abuse of discretion.”

Nichols is accused of shooting Prairie Grove police Sgt. Greg Lovett with a 20-gauge shotgun after Lovett found the boy lying in a field about a mile from the junior high school on May 11. Nichols fired four shots that struck the sergeant in the face, chest, back and buttocks. Lovett fired back, shooting the boy in the abdomen. Nichols was hospitalized for six days and, upon release from the hospital, was charged with attempted capital murder.

Immediately following the shooting, the media published stories using Nichols’ name and yearbook pictures. But seven days later, juvenile court judge Stacey Zimmerman ordered the media not to publish the boy’s name or photograph, or any information about Lovett.

The attorney general’s office argued that Zimmerman should be commended for the order. “Clearly Judge Zimmerman sought to reach a balance between the confidentiality interest and the interest in public exposure in entering this order,” a filing signed by the Assistant Attorney General said.

But a media consortium, including The Associated Press, the Arkansas Press Association, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and The New York Times Co. filed an appeal stating that Zimmerman’s order was a violation of the First and 14th amendments by imposing a prior restraint on the media’s distribution of information. The media argued that it was too late to bring up the issue of balancing Nichol’s privacy with the public interest because a week’s worth of photographs and information had already been published.

Zimmerman later changed her original order, saying she agreed with the media that she could not bar the publication of information and photographs gathered before the hearing began. However, she did not lift the ban on taking pictures of the boy in or outside the courts building.

The state’s largest newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was fined $100 — the maximum allowed — after Zimmerman held the paper in contempt of court for publishing photographs of Nichols and his parents outside the courthouse despite the judge’s order.

“The fine isn’t burdensome, but the principle is worth defending,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist George Arnold wrote in an editorial.

The Arkansas Supreme Court agreed that the media’s First Amendment rights had to be defended in this case.

“There appears to be no overriding state interest at stake to justify restraining the media from taking additional photographs of Nichols,” the court wrote.

(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette v. Zimmerman) SK

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© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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